As a longtime reporter and newspaper columnist, Jacquelyn Mitchard couldn't help but wonder what happens to victims of high-profile violence after the headlines fade away and the camera crews disappear. In her powerful new novel, Cage of Stars, the Swan family—what's left of it—is wading through its grief after a deeply disturbed young man, Scott Early, kills their two youngest daughters in a particularly brutal way.
Twelve-year-old Ronnie Swan, the eldest daughter and the one baby-sitting when Becky and Ruthie were murdered, is left to deal not only with the intense media attention but also with her own guilt and anger. While her deeply devout Mormon parents eventually choose to forgive Early, Ronnie is consumed by her need to avenge her sisters' deaths.
Mitchard found the basis for her novel in a newspaper story detailing a similar real-life killing in California. But instead of lingering on the violence itself, she wanted to explore the aftermath of having a loved one suddenly torn away. In Cage of Stars, the murder scene is harrowing, but brief.
"I didn't want violence to be the subject of the book," she says in an interview from her home in Wisconsin. "I wanted to handle the crime as discreetly and delicately as I could. I was more curious about what happened after."
Mitchard is known for her gripping and thought-provoking portrayals of families in pain. In her best-selling novel The Deep End of the Ocean—the very first Oprah Book Club selection—a child is kidnapped, only to be found years later and returned to parents who are virtual strangers. Custody battles, failing marriages, chronic illnesses: Mitchard has covered them all in her six previous novels, which include The Breakdown Lane and A Theory of Relativity. Cage of Stars is another Mitchard classic, a gripping journey into an unthinkable situation. It is a lovely meditation on faith, family and finding peace in the unforgivable.
When speaking, Mitchard exudes a down-home energy and humor that belies the tough subject matter she often tackles.
When thanked for talking with BookPage at 10 a.m., she exclaims, "It's midday for me! I live in the country. The children have to catch the bus at an absurd hour." She goes on to matter-of-factly add that she has already exercised and met her morning goal of 200 sit-ups. And somehow, because of her cheerful breeziness, you are happy for her.
Mitchard lives on a farm near Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and seven children, as well as two Clydesdales and one horse "of indeterminate origin." A picturesque life, to be sure, but it wasn't always so easy. Her first husband, reporter Dan Allegretti, died of colorectal cancer in 1993, leaving her behind to provide for their three young children.
"We had nothing," she recalls. "We had learned every way to serve rice."
Even worse for Mitchard was the uncertainty of wondering what really happens to loved ones after they die. She found it unbearable.
"Being a widow, I know that survival can be worse than death," she says. "None of us knows for sure whether we go to eternal life or a good night's sleep."
For their part, the Swans cope with the loss of two children by relying heavily on their faith. Mitchard chose Mormonism mainly for its focus on family, and seems surprised at the interest that choice has garnered.
"It's the least important question of the whole book, yet the one I get the most," she says. "I chose it because I wanted Ronnie to have an extremely sheltered girlhood, but I wanted her to live in a community where she could be a lawyer, a dancer, a basketball player—anything she wanted to be. A part of the world, yet not worldly."
For a young girl who grew up free from the modern culture of violent video games and television, the murders would be almost incomprehensible. So a shattered Ronnie finds herself plotting to track down Early, without really knowing what she will do when she comes face-to-face with him again.
"Revenge is a primary human emotion. Forgiveness isn't," Mitchard says. "When we are wronged or hurt, our instinct is to strike back. But it doesn't always get us what we think it will, which is peace."
As with her previous novels, Mitchard found writing Cage of Stars to be an all-encompassing project.
"When you are writing fiction, you sort of drop down into this other kingdom," she says. "It isn't as though I ignore my children and don't feed them. It's just that some part of your mind is living in that invisible house you've created."
And Mitchard has one steadfast rule while immersed in writing a novel: She doesn't read any other fiction.
"I become desperately jealous," she says. "I wonder why I ever tried this at all."
Certainly thousands of aspiring writers felt the same pangs of envy when, on Sept. 17, 1996, Mitchard's The Deep End of the Ocean was announced as the inaugural Oprah Book Club selection. Winfrey herself left Mitchard several messages, but Mitchard, assuming it was a prank, didn't return the calls. Only after Winfrey persisted did Mitchard learn that her life was about to change drastically. She had no way of knowing just how much.
"Who knew what it would mean?" Mitchard says. "People had such a hunger and thirst to gossip about a book. They just embraced it."
The kind of fame and financial windfall that comes with being an Oprah Book Club pick comes at a strange price—but it's one that Mitchard has easily accepted.
"Some days I think it set the gate so high for me that it'll be difficult for me to attain that kind of success again," she says. "On the other hand, it gave me the privilege and ability to support myself, my husband and my children.
"I'm privileged to write stories for a living."
Amy Scribner writes from Olympia, Washington.